Joseph "Joe" Colombo Sr. was leader of the Colombo crime family
, one of the "Five Families" considered the most important in the American Mafia.
Colombo was part of the Profaci Crime Family, and Colombo became head of what was then known as the Profaci family in 1962, following the deaths of family founder Joe Profaci
and his successor, Joseph Magliocco
. Colombo inherited a family wracked by internal dissension and battles with other crime leaders, particularly Carlo Gambino
In the spring of 1970, Colombo responded to increasing FBI scrutiny of his activities by picketing FBI offices in New York City, claiming that the FBI was harassing Italian-Americans. These activities led to the formation of the Italian-American Civil Rights League. On June 29, 1970, 50,000 people showed up in Columbus Circle in New York City for an "Italian-American Unity Day" rally. Among the participants were five U.S. Representatives and several prominent entertainers.
Under Colombo's guidance, the League quickly grew in numbers and soon developed a national presence. The League drew further publicity when in November 1970 Frank Sinatra headlined a benefit for the League at Madison Square Garden. Colombo became increasingly public in his attempts to portray FBI anti-Mafia activities as "harassment" of Italian-Americans. Unlike other mob leaders at the time who tried to shun the spotlight, Colombo began to appear in television interviews and make other speaking appearances on behalf of the League.
Colombo planned to follow up on the League's early successes by planning a second Italian Unity Day rally in Columbus Circle to be held June 28, 1971. Other Mafia leaders were quite displeased with Colombo's public activities. Prior to the rally, Colombo's position became more difficult with the release from prison of Joey Gallo
. Gallo had previously battled for control of the Profaci/Colombo organization during the "Gallo-Profaci War." Gallo used his time in prison to build alliances with other ethnic criminals (most particularly black criminals in Harlem and the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn), and was using these contacts to disrupt Colombo's activities in Brooklyn.
On the morning of the second Italian Unity Day rally, Colombo was shot by Jerome Johnson, who, disguised as a news photographer, approached Colombo and shot him as Colombo was about to address the rally. As Colombo's son and several others were wrestling Johnson to the ground, an unknown black man stepped up and shot Johnson dead. The gunman then escaped and has never been identified.
Colombo was seriously wounded. He did not die immediately, but never regained consciousness. He lingered on in a coma for nearly seven years ("vegetabled" in the words of Joe Gallo) and died at his New Jersey estate on May 22, 1978.
Colombo's murder was never solved. Because the assailant was a black man, it has often been assumed that Joe Gallo, with his alliances with black criminals and his hatred of Colombo, ordered the murder.
|People surrounding Colombo after|
also was considered a suspect. Gambino was angered over the increasing publicity generated by Colombo's activities with the League, and it was later reported that Colombo responded to a Gambino request to cease his public activities by spitting in Gambino's face. In addition, Johnson, the assassin, was known to have associated with people connected with the Gambinos.
Another theory is that the U.S. government set up the assassination to destroy the League. It is believed that Colombo was a target of the FBI COINTELPRO program. Colombo is also mentioned on an assassination victims list in Volume IX part II of the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy
and Organized Crime report of Ralph Salerno, consultant to the Select Committee on Assassinations.
Colombo was replaced as head of the Colombo family by Vincenzo Aloi
, and his assassination touched off a second intra-family war with the Gallo forces.
In an HBO Special shown 11P.M. on Thanksgiving night 2005 Chris Colombo, son of Joe Colombo, aired film footage of his father's civil rights work and stated that his father was assassinated.